Preppers movement matures into major market

...heading to the mainstream (Mila Kunis)

Based on a story by Gordon Fiedler

The Off-Grid movement has parallels with the Preppers. While the latter is more apocalyptic, many preppers want to live off-grid and many off-gridders are preppers – meaning they are preparing for a general social or economic collapse.

A recent gathering of preppers at Ottawa County State Fishing Lake, north of Bennington, drew folks from all over the state. They were alerted to the “meet-up” because they are members of the Kansas Preppers Network, which is part of the American Preppers Network.

They go by such online names as Lionheart, Trekker, Kanman, MoEngineer, Guntech and High Hopes. They didn’t want their real identities known for fear of home invasions by the unprepared and also, in some cases, to hide their efforts from suspicious employers.

As forum members, they can post questions and comment on queries from others, rant about current events and share an occasional joke among their prepper peers in every state and in all of Canada’s provinces and territories. There are even groups in Britain, Italy and New Zealand.

APN’s co-founder and current director is Tom Martin, who maintains the site from his Idaho home.He launched the site in January 2009 and patterned it after online forums in Texas and Utah. Others began popping up and he and associates decided the time was ripe for a larger, more cohesive organization.

“We saw the writing on the wall some time ago,” he told The Salinas Journal.

He could see ominous signs in the housing bubble, the federal debt and other events.

The movement’s infancy

But when he started the site, the prepper movement was in its infancy.

Back then, there were fewer than a 1,000 Internet sites that answered to a search on the word, and many of them dealt with such subjects as auto body restoration.

“There were only four or five at the time that dealt with preparedness,” Martin said.

A search of the word now delivers more than a half million sites.

There are even preparedness videos posted on YouTube.

Martin’s forum also has swelled, with more than 9,000 registered members, and it is growing daily. But the movement is much larger than that.

“We’re by no means the leader in the movement. I don’t think there is a leader.”

He said people are being drawn to the site for varied reasons and bringing with them a broad spectrum of philosophies.

“We’ve got people on the left, on the right and everything in the middle,” he said. “We’ve got people preparing for things as simple as a job loss to people preparing for natural disasters, economic disasters. A few people believe in the 2012 (Mayan prophesy) theory. Anything and everything.”

Self-reliance the key

Despite the differing political persuasions of his forum members, Martin said they seem to rally around a common cause: self-reliance.

“Almost nobody that I know (who) is a prepper thinks they can rely on the government to help them in a disaster,” he said. “Even FEMA comes out and says we have to have three days of food and water. They know they can’t get to you immediately.”

Martin said he’s traced the origin of the word “prepper” to the Y2K scare, when people taking precautions against the anticipated computer collapse were known as Y2K preppers.

While Y2K was an end-of-times bust, it was instructive, Martin said. Perhaps, he said, the precautions by businesses and individuals on the eve of the new millennium prevented a larger catastrophe.

The prepper term simmered on the back burner for nearly a decade before being picked up within the past few years by people worried about the souring economy, the housing and banking crises, oil and food prices and political gridlock in Washington.

Business is good

As the movement has grown, so have businesses that cater to the prepper crowd.

Forum chatter from preppers on such topics as sources for food-grade containers, home canning and processing, gardening, water filtration, alternative energy, backyard livestock, defensive weapons and ammunition, rural property, hunting, post-collapse coinage and wilderness survival has spawned a growth industry.

Pam Molloy is general partner of Mayflower Trading Co. in North Fork, Idaho, a 14-year-old business that supplies not just preppers, but others seeking a self-sufficient lifestyle.

It offers emergency food, housewares, first-aid and alternative energy products.

“I have seen a huge increase in storage food and the first-aid stuff, disaster kits, trauma kits,” Molloy said.

“When we first went online, people were interested in food, survival stuff, tents, knives, outdoor cooking,” she said. “It was real popular as people prepared for Y2K. Then when that was over, we started seeing a lot more business in alternative energy. Even though Y2K didn’t go down the way it was going to happen, they were awakened. This whole place is fragile.”

She said her clientele now includes homesteaders; latter-day back-to-the-land types; the “greens” who want to lessen their carbon footprint, and the survivalists.

” I use that term for people who believe that if things go bad, they can run off into the woods and survive,” Molloy said.

Multiyear food supplies

The storable food business was first generated by rural dwellers who simply wanted a garden backup to get them through the winter and early spring.

“Now, people are buying multiyear supplies,” said Molloy, who wonders where people are putting all of it.

“I don’t know if they’re remodeling houses, storing it in crawl spaces, clearing out the lawnmower shed.”

She knows of one customer who has chosen food as his investment of choice.

“One guy told me he’s spending his retirement savings on food. He thought he would need it because his (money) will buy twice as much.”

He said he’d rather buy a bucket of wheat now for $20 rather than $40 later on as food prices rise.

Creating thriving lives

Another business preppers have tapped is Shelf Reliance, a Utah company that first catered to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are commanded to maintain a year’s supply of food.

Marketing director Sebastian Nilsson said the company got its start in 2005 manufacturing and selling shelving that automatically rotates the stock.

Now it’s tapping into the prepper movement by offering, besides the shelf systems, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods and emergency kits and supplies.

“We have the tools to help people build up a home store,” Nilsson said.

“We’re trying to find a vision to help create thriving lives. We feel to be prepared gives you peace of mind for whatever hits.”

Ready for the really big one

And if the big one — the really big one — hits, then Brian Camden should have been at the top of the preparedness list.

He’s principal of Hardened Structures, a manufacturer of bomb shelters, including high-end models that go for up to $600 a square foot. His company is building them all over the world for private, commercial and military clients.

“A lot of people are scared about the economic collapse,” Camden said. “That’s 50 percent of our business. In the last four to five years, it’s picked up, definitely.”

These are not the septic-tank-like backyard structures of the Cold War. Not for $600 a square foot.

For that kind of money, you’re getting “a reinforced concrete underground bunker with blast overpressure protection with full NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) filtering,” Camden said.

“We build them with hydroponic food growing systems, barns underground for livestock, water generation, sewage disposal,” he said.

Shelter dwellers could survive for five years in one of them, he said.

Selling freeze-dried food

After 9-11, Victor Rantala was another who saw an opportunity.

“The buzz was that the world had changed,” he wrote in an email. “Danger was around every corner. I wasn’t necessarily buying into that thought process, but I had always been into preparedness to some degree and have always believed it just to be common sense to be ready for the unexpected on any number of levels. What I saw was that folks were not being well-served in the preparedness marketplace, in spite of the sudden surge in interest.”

So in 2002, he founded Safecastle Royal in Prior Lake, Minn., and started selling freeze-dried food online, then expanded into storm shelters.

Other entrepreneurs, seeing an opportunity in the prepper market, also jumped on board.

“Market niches … have steadily, and sometimes suddenly, grown through the 10 years I’ve been materially involved,” he said.

He declined to reveal sales figures but said business is growing.

“What I will say is that our annual revenue growth each of the last 10 years has easily exceeded expectations most investors or business owners would have for an average business in today’s environment. We are growing, expanding, and hiring (part-time people) from time to time,” although he’s not adding staff at this time.

“In a sense, I welcome the fact that preparedness is so much more mainstream today than it was several years ago,” he said.

Take care of yourself

One who would agree is Tom Martin. If his American Preppers Network does just one thing, it is this: “I’d like to see every able-bodied American become self-reliant, to be motivated and capable to take care of themselves.”


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